History and Literature of Theater

Category: Culture
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2021/05/10
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Dr. McAllister Controversial Laws surrounding homosexuals and Theater Theater in itself is a controversy. All throughout theaters history plays have been pushing the boundaries on what is morally acceptable for the public’s eye. How a playwright is seen in the public can also affect a plays receptions as well as how the characters in the play are representing. Homosexuality for a majority of history has been seen as a morally incorrect act, a sin, a gross indecency. Only until modern time has homosexuality been legal in the eyes of the law but also accepted in the growing eyes of the public. How has the public’s views on homosexuality directly affected plays, playwrights, and actors? In many ways has homophobia in the public affected the theatrical community. This toxic view has affected Oscar Wilde in shutting down his plays The Importance of Being Earnest and The Ideal Husband on the accusation that he was a homosexual in 1895.

The shut down a production called “The Drag” by Mae West before it could even make its way onto Broadway in 1926. Then came the attempted shut down of a performance of Angels in Americain Charlotte in 1996 but resulting in the cut of state funding to the arts. All of these incidents had a great effect on the queer and theater communities of the time. History on this is intensive and could include many more examples then the ones given. These laws and regulations put into effect to curve the public opinion may not seem to have a direct effect on most but it still affects those who call queer od theater communities home. It affects thoes when the ruling forces of the government and the views of the people shut down theatrical art for fear of the homosexual.

In other words the fear of the unknown, the unloved those who have been cast to the bottom of society just for expressing their true inner feelings outwardly. This matters because the theater and the world today is changing. Oscar Wilde is celebrated today as a gay icon and as a master playwright. Drag Queens have their own known TV show where tips and tricks are shares in the Queen community. The aids epidemic is now widely talked about and researched to help prevent anything like it from happening again in the queer community. This change matters. To understand one’s place in the world there must be an understanding of the world’s history. Comparing the growth not only to right now, but to how far one has come. Everything is built off of what has come before.

Theater works in this same way. I personally belong to both the queer and the theatrical community. It affects me in the look I get from people when they hear that I’m going into theater or that my lover is another women. The instant judgment on strangers faces who don’t truly know me. A brief history of those belonging to the LGBT+ or queer community. Back at the dawning of civilization, there were no recorded prejudices or hate for those who chose to love someone of the same sex. There are stories passed down through time from the Mesopotamian society showing all different types of love. Some people even go as far as to say that the great story of Gilgamesh shows signs of him and his best friend Enkidu had a stronger relationship than just platonic friendship.

The ancient Greeks were notorious for their free love attitude on life. Not only having open love for those of the same sex but also tales and myths on those that could be transgender like the myth of Caeneus who asked the gods to change gender. But even as accepting and open the Greeks were there were also those who dislike people who loved the same sex. This notion of hate, or in modern terms homophobia, was escalated with the growing popularity of the Christian and Islamic religions. In the old testament, there are phrases that can be interpreted against homosexuals, mainly gay men. Even the term Sodomy came from the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah the cities rampant with sin and lust, commonly referred to the process of annal sex in men. Sodomy over time came to refer to any sexual act that did not result in procreation.

Ex. gay sex, annal sex, and masturbation both in women and men. Over time as governments and churches were coming into power, they made laws, rules, and regulations against the act of sodomy although most were rearly enforced unless someone was a hindrance to the society. In A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, he goes into lots of details about the queer community of the United States from the early settlers from Europe to the Stonewall riots of the 1970s. Bronski has much to say over the various sodomy laws but sums it up as,“Sodomy laws play a key element in structuring ideas about acceptable and unacceptable behavior in U.S. culture, and in structuring society itself, because gender and sexuality are often prime axis by which society distinguishes between ‘purity’ and ‘danger’.” (Bronski 16) Only recently did western laws begin to change.

The first real change happened in France in 1791 with the Penal codes and France did not add in any sodomy laws in the revolutions to follow. England, on the other hand, added more laws in order to protect women but these laws were left to interpretation and used against openly gay men. In the late 1800’s England, any sexual act that resulted in an orgasm that wasn’t for reproduction was seen as indecent, but as it was a common belief that women can not orgasm hence lesbians were saved from this type of prosecution. Bronski explains that the term homosexual was first published by Jarl-Marina Kertbeny in 1869 pamphlets, claiming that “Prussian laws punishing same-sex sexual activity contradicted the “rights of man” and a natural human desire.” (78) unfortunately this was not the common or accepted outlook at the time.

New terms continued to grow and come about in the next century but homosexual tended to be one that stuck around to describe same-sex love in an educated term. Now in particular for Oscar Wilde and those living in England, there was no real punishment for the act of male love until the 1880s, even at times known and accepted as long as those involved stayed quite. There was a big movement lead by early feminists to control the sexual urges of men, with the goal of ending to prostitution and pornography. The law itself was put into place to protect girls from being misused and abused.

Professor Douglas O. Lindner states that the Criminal Law Amendment Act section 11 by “ Henry Labouchere, M. P., sought to make any indecent assault punishable by proposing an amendment that would make “gross indecencies”–regardless of the age of the victim–punishable as a misdemeanor.” This law only ten years later, was interpreted against Oscar Wilde’s love affair with one Alfred Douglas. When Douglas father Lord Queensberry was very upset over his son’s relationship to the older Oscar Wilde and sought to put a permanent end to the affair. Oscar was found guilty on account of multiple gross indecencies. Oscar served two years in prison working hard labor This sentence is credited with cutting his life short and losing his will to live.

Oscar died a short while after being released while living in France. Oscars trial in May of 1895 had a great effect on his works, both plays, and published writings. The current run of The Importance of Being Earnest and the long run of his play The Ideal Husband had to be cut short after the scandal. His play Earnest had only started running in February of that same year and had another scandal altogether. Queensberry the one accusing Oscar of his sodomy crimes sent threats to Oscar that he would destem the opening night celebrations of the play.

On February 14, 1895, Wilde’s new play The Importance of Being Earnest was set to open at the St. James Theatre. Wilde learned that Queensberry planned to disrupt the opening night’s performance and harangue the audience about Wilde’s alleged decadent lifestyle. Wilde arranged to have the theater surrounded by police. His plan blocked, Queenberry prowled about outside for three hours before finally leaving “chattering.”(Lindner) This did not, in fact, change any of the reception of the play. The audience and the critics fell in love with the ridiculousness of it. The overbearingness of Oscar’s wit coming out in every line of the play. The play seems to flourish even as Oscar was preparing for what attack Queensberry would take next.

In the end, it was Oscar’s own wit that lead to the end. Oscar attempted to sue Queensberry but the lawsuit could not be upheld, then leading to the trial on Oscar’s homosexuality, in which Queensberry and his lawyers drew up old lovers of Oscar to testify against him. Once news broke of the subject of the trial, the owner of the St. James theater, in which The Importance of Being Earnest was showing, George Alexander; tried to keep the show going regardless of the trail that the playwright was under. Alexander first attempted to take Oscar Wilde’s name off the program but the show was too widely known and was shut down a few days later form public outcry.

One such outcry comes from an anonymous review of the play in the newspaper Theatre was published on May 1st, 1895. The attacks were primarily focused on the author of the work and reflect the new public knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s gross indecency. “The most obvious thing suggested by The Importance of Being Earnest is the advantage of being frivolous, which, in a pecuniary sense, is likely to accrue to an author who caters for the less intelligent section of the public. Mr. Oscar Wilde has the courage of his convictions. He has recognized that the majority of playgoers are prepared to accept him at the value he has set upon himself, and accordingly he exhibits perfect readiness to fool them to the top of their bent….of the success of the new comedy there can be no doubt, inasmuch as its audacity–we had almost said impertinence–will not fail to attract votaries of a society which enjoys nothing more keenly then an exhibition on the stage of its own weakness.

To criticize the work seriously would be a measure that the author himself would probably be the first to decide. So little respect, indeed, does he show for his own piece, that in places he has not hesitated to ridicule the very creatures born of his fertile imagination; while, throughout its performance, one is constantly forced to the conclusion that his tongue must have found refuge in his cheek more frequently than not as the labor of writing progressed.” ( Beckson 199-200) This review of the incident calls into question if there are any bits of his homosexuality that has influenced the work on stage and calls for the public action in drawing their own conclusions as to what type of hidden messages are underlying in his works There were many public outcries when Oscar published The Picture of Dorian Gray and then again countless newspaper articles about the trial.

Karl Beckson book Oscar Wilde A Critical Heritage goes into and collects all of these newspaper reviews on his life. Oscar Wilde lived an extraordinary life and could have gone on creating plays but was pushed down by societies views on his homosexuality and the laws against it. Now back in America of the late 1920s, there was a strong continuation of the original Puritan ideas. Now along with the prohibition of the time, America was trying to become a good Christian place of being but tend to fail as the reform plans backfired and meet strong retaliation. “The immediate effect of this moral backlash was the enforcement of laws that censored productions on the stage. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice lobbied aggressively to clean up the Broadway stage and was particularly vigilant against homosexual themes and characters. In 1922 it urged the city to close Sholem Asch’s classic 1907 Yiddish drama The God of Vengeance because of its setting in a brothel and it’s lesbian content.

In February 1927, the drama The Captive, which had been running since the previous September, because of its overt lesbian theme…Two months later the Republican-run state assembly passes a law that prohibited theatrical performances “Depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion.” It also instituted the Wales Padlock law, which allo

wed police to close a theater for a year of the owners were convicted of presenting a play that violated the obscenity laws. ( The Wales Padlock law remained in the books, largely unenforced, until 1967)”(Bronski 117) These new laws had a great effect on theater at the time. Mainly used as a scare tactic to keep anything indecent off of the stage before it even had a chance to properly open. These laws directly affected Mae West in her two written plays. SEX was taken off Broadway and she was sentenced to jail and THE DRAG was never even allowed to open in the city for its controversial topics. Now Mae West grew up in this ever-changing New York city environment. West explains all of her extraordinary life in her autobiography Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. She grew up first doing vaudeville performances then the Broadway stage called her name and eventually found herself on film.

All through her exorbitant life, West seemed to hit roadblocks and censorship laws stopping and confining her every move. Her Broadway life as a writer was very short lived with only two plays, one making it onto Broadway only to be shut down. Her first play SEX was a major hit of the time. The first real story that would talk about the taboo. The storyline follows a prostitute, played by West herself, and her attempt to seduce a rich man into providing a life outside of prostitution. Mea West second play The Drag is centered around the hidden world of homosexuals.

The first acts centers around a conversation about the new theory on conversion therapy and its effects. Dr. Richmond believes he can help these men. Then two men enter to get therapy and help that’s been offered only for it to spiral out of control as the men are faced with two of his ex-lovers. Rolly the main character holds a drag ball in his house in the final act. The stage full of 40+ men in various dresses then ends the party early and exits offstage. A gunshot is heard and Rolly is found dead. His father and the Judge not wanting his homosexual past known or investigated calls it a suicide even after Dr. Richmond as confessed to killing Rolly.

The topics the play hits are hard-hitting and were just not talked about openly much less talked about on stage for anyone in the world to see. Mae West talks about her reason behind writing such a controversial piece, “When I began to write my homosexual play, THE DRAG, I felt a strong compulsion to put down a realistic drama of the tragic waste of a way of life that was spreading too modern society at a time when any mention of it was met by ordinary people with a stare of shocked horror. Oscar Wilde had gone to prison only a generation or so before for his effrontery of even hinting at his passions for other men….THE DRAG treated seriously the problems of a homosexual. And showed how his abnormal tendencies bright disaster to his family, his friends, and himself. It started that an intelligent understanding of the problems of all homosexuals by society could avert such social tragedies.”(West 94)

The play was a hit and many people who came to see it loved it and almost all the performances were sold out when premiering in New Jersey. When Mae wished to bring the show to Broadway for an even bigger audience and attention to the play’s subjects, she and her producer were approached privately by public officials that the show would upset the city. She “gave in reluctantly and didn’t bring the show to New York City. Too many odd important people in town were frightened at the idea of my play as a public exhibit.”( West 95) While fighting to bring The Drag to Broadway she was fighting to keep her play SEX running on Broadway. Those same officials came for Mae and her provocative performance in the play. There was a trial to shut down the play.

Many newspapers reported on the incident. In this report from the Daily News on February 16, 1927 sums up the events. ” MAE WEST HELD FOR TRIAL AFTER ‘SEX’ HAS AIRING By, ELEANOR KELLOGG. The business of cleaning up the theatre grew more and more legal yesterday as the fate of Broadway plays was argued in three different, courts. After the genteel voice of Police Inspector James S. Bolan had run through the tawdry lines of “Sex” for an hour and a half. Magistrate Simpson in. West Side court held Mae West, C: W. Morgenstern and twenty others for Special Sessions. The charge was giving an immoral performance and maintaining a public nuisance.

By the end of the trial Mae West, was sentenced to 10 days in jail. Of those 10 she only spent 8 of in jail with 2 days off for good behavior. She became a sort of celebrity in the system and then gave regularly to the jail to help the women who ended up there. The laws of the time to stop Mae West and other performances from spreading indecencies into the popular culture of New York during the purity movement of the 1920s. Mae was constricted on Broadway so she soon moved to film but with the recession and then the following wars, she was never given the opportunity to truly express herself or her ideas during the conservative times. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the laws started changing against this type of censorship on open sexuality.

Things seemed to be on an upward swing for people since the then, that was until the AIDS epidemic hit the queer community. But from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success. The queer community grew from the devastation and learned to a unified together because almost everyone knew someone who loss to AIDS. From this came a lot of plays and even musicals about the effects that AIDS had on the queer and theatrical communities. Once such play on the subject is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and the second part Perestroika. The plays when first premiering on Broadway was widely anticipated and even was nominated in multiple Tony award categories. There was probably some public outcry on the play during the time but none was louder than when Charlotte Repertory Theater showed the performance. The outcry not only came in the form of gay representation in the play and the topic of the AIDS epidemic but on a seven second full nudity scene.

Steven Nunn conducted countless interviews in 1998 about the incident from both sides of the story. He recounts it in his book Acting up : Free Speech, Pragmatism, and American Performance in the Late 20th Century. The true backlash came in the attempt to shut down the production at the time. Things came to a head on the morning of opening night, when the theatre’s own venue, the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, issued a cease-and-desist order against the production for breaking its lease by engaging in illegal conduct—that is, presenting nudity on stage.

Three hours before curtain, a Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Blumenthal, its board and staff, and concurrently against any other individual or government agency that had the legal authority to close the production. That meant the show could go on. (Nunn 216) And the show did go on. The production ran for its scheduled run even adding an extra 10 performances to meet with the ticket demand. (Nunn 216) After the initial backlash of the play’s performance things seemed to be under the rug until the next elections when the republican officials decided that they would cut all state funding to the Arts and Science Council.

Bill James the county commissioner here in an interview with the author Nunn states his views on what happened then as: “I’m not even against tax dollars going to the arts,” James continues. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll let them fund stuff that most Southerners find offensive. We don’t want to be like New York and San Francisco. Yeah, we like art and we like culture, but we’re not going to flush our morals down the sewer. The fact is, in this state, homosexuality is a felony. If you get caught, you will be arrested and you will be convicted. Some people may say that’s not fair, but I say to them, if you don’t like the law, then go to Raleigh and change it.” And the law did change.

Not long after in the next elections on one person who was in favor of cutting funding stayed on to serve in the next year and funding was restored to the Arts and Science Council. This hasn’t been the only controversial bill North Carolina has passed against the queer community or even on art funding. There have been some since and even more still to come. As a declared bisexual currently in a polyamorous relationship with two other women. I tend to get the label of too political. One who is “a bit too invested in politics.”

Not only does these laws affect me as a person, they affect my career and my creative freedom as a thespian. They affect countless others as well. The way the public can view a problem can be how lawmakers view a problem, mainly when the public’s views are against a minority that can’t vote against its oppressors. There have been laws on both theater and on homosexuality. There continue to be laws on these matters. Both communities are working to get the Laws to change in any way they can. The most effective way is by performing plays on the topics in an open discussion. A chance to change some of the public views on the topic. Drawing attention to the laws and calling for them to be unjust and a need to be corrected. This fight has been going on for some time and doesn’t seem to have a clear ending yet. I personally keep fighting for the advancement of the next generation. Just because something is the way it has always been done doesn’t mean it is the way it should always be done.

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History and Literature of Theater. (2021, May 10). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/history-and-literature-of-theater/

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